In the late 1970s when I was in Singapore, Singapore Airlines threatened to strike.
Lee Kuan Yew said, “I will sell SQ to Lufthansa which maintains it anyway.” End of strike.
When the chief justice passed away, Lee Kuan Yew pondered in public, “Hmmmmm, I don’t see anyone of his quality here. I think I will go to the UK and get an English judge to replace him.” When mergers and acquisitions were all the rage, he shared with media his observation about the shortness of legal talent in that field. He said, “I am inviting foreign law firms.” In no time a Singaporean judge of the required quality emerged. And Singaporeans rapidly acquired an expertise in M&A fully the equal of the best foreign legal talent invited.
In the mid 1980s, after we had liberated ourselves from dictatorship without a shot fired, except the one that took out Ninoy Aquino, and we were whining about our poverty because we had endured for 13 years a thieving dictatorship we easily overthrew—so in a way / the gigantic waste and robbery was mainly our fault—Lee Kuan Yew spoke in public. This I got from a foreign diplomat stationed there.
Bad economic times had hit the world. Singapore registered near to zero growth. In his elite government uniform of white shirt and black trousers, Lee walked to the microphone. He put his hands in his pants pockets and pulled up his pants. Then he said, “We have to make ourselves more competitive. We have to cut back on public services. And we all have to take a 20% cut in our salaries. But I promise you that in a year or so when things have recovered the 20% will be restored to you and perhaps more.”
The diplomat waited for the reaction. He went to the window to see rioting on the streets but the streets were empty and calm. People had stayed home to listen to their leader—preeminent in common sense and uncommon brilliance. After the broadcast, they turned in early to prepare themselves for the sacrifices ahead. When the recovery came and was exceeded by more progress, no one even remarked that Lee was good for his word. That went without saying.
By this time Singapore did not have a single drug addict and yet bodies did not litter the streets. Singapore survived and thrived in a dangerous world not by the naked force of numbers but the singular brilliance and dedication of its leaders who had convinced its people and neighboring countries that their collective defense and wellbeing turned entirely on the rule of law at home and in the region. That is leadership.
Talent, dedication, modesty and discreetness, moderation. Yet Lee was a proud man; arrogant even. But he showed it not with brash words but by his country’s achievements.
In the best way, Lee Kuan Yew achieved immortality. His presence is felt in his great city and all over the world to this day.
When Singapore’s turn comes for a seat in the UN Security Council where the 5 great powers rule the world, no one will object and everyone will vote for it.
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